The Characteristics Of Watercolor Paints

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Every tube of paint in your tabouret has unique characteristics and learning how each color behaves will be a big step in your artistic quest.

This isn’t something you’ll learn all at once, and different manufacturers’ paints may behave slightly differently. You’ll also find that there’s also a difference between student and professional series paints.

A useful exercise is creating color swatches of all your paints. Each time you buy a new color or the same color from a different manufacturer, you should add that to your test sheets. Use the paper you most often use for your paintings to get the best results.


Not all watercolors are transparent. Some are semi-transparent and others are quite opaque. Knowing the difference in opacity can make a great deal of difference to your painting. For example, if you want to glaze over a portion of a painting, using a transparent color will add a glow of color to the existing paint. However, if you’ve chosen an opaque color, you’ll cover over some of the existing work and muddy other areas.

To check the transparency of all your paints, use a black permanent marker to draw a fairly wide strip vertically on a piece of watercolor paper. When it’s dry, paint a stripe of juicy, saturated color horizontally across the black. Do this for each color in your paint box.

Make sure to label each color with the brand and name. Also, indicate whether it’s student grade or professional quality. When you examine the strips, you will see that some colors disappear when painted across the black while others leave a deposit of paint.

There are varying degrees between transparent and opaque, and close observation will tell you whether the paint is transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque or opaque.
For example, Hansa Yellow is translucent while Cadmium Yellow is opaque. You can use Hansa Yellow to add a soft yellow glaze to a painting, but don’t try that with Cadmium Yellow.

Cobalt Blue is very transparent, but Cerulean Blue is a chalky, opaque blue in the same color family. Each color is great but has different uses. The Cadmium family is generally opaque or semi-opaque, but you’ll find the Quinacridone family of colors is transparent.

Once you’ve complete this exercise with all your tubes, you’ll be able to glaze or add opaque highlights easily and efficiently.

Staining And Tinting

Some paints really stain your watercolor paper and no amount of re-wetting and lifting will remove all the color. You can even attack the re-wetted paint with an oil paint brush and scrub the daylights out of it and all you’ll wind up with is a hole in your paper with the color tinting the edges.

However, other colors are easily removed by wetting and blotting. Some can be removed to nearly pure white. Generally, the staining colors also have high tinting strength. This means that they are very strong in color and very little of the paint is needed to make significant changes in your painting.

Testing for staining potential is simple. Paint a square of each color with a strong wash. Label each color square with its name, manufacturer and whether it’s professional or student grade. After the paint has thoroughly dried, use a stiff oil or acrylic paint brush dipped in clean water to remove a swath of paint from the square. Go over the strip a number of times to remove as much of the paint as possible. After the paper has dried you can compare the staining quality of the paints.

You’ll see that French Ultramarine Blue comes off very cleanly while Phthalo Blue permanently stains your paper very well. The same holds true for Permanent Rose, which lifts easily, and the permanently staining Alizarin Crimson.

If you like to lift color often for highlights or because you change your mind a lot, knowing which colors are easy to remove is an asset and a time saver.

Sedimentary Colors

Paint is basically ground pigment suspended in a binder. The finer the particles are ground, the more smoothly the color will appear on your paper. Although many paints can be applied in a wash that is consistent and uniform, some hues dry with a granular, uneven appearance.

Some pigment granules are heavier and larger, so they don’t stay suspended in the binder and water. They sink to the paper and bunch up causing irregularities in the color wash. That’s fine if you’re looking for a mottled appearance, but it just won’t do for a perfectly blue, cloudless sky.

Manganese Blue is a very granular paint that won’t give you those fair Caribbean skies, but Phthalo Blue will give you silky, fluid washes to go with those clear seas.

To test the sedimentary qualities of your colors, paint a juicy square of paint on your test sheet. Use a clean brush filled with water to lengthen the square. Then run the tip of the brush across the painted area from left to right and draw down the paint into the clear, wet area. When the paint has dried, you’ll see that some colors go from a dark color at the top to a lighter color at the bottom very evenly while others have an irregular, mottled look.

As with the other tests, label each square with the pertinent information so you can see at a glance which colors are good for creating even flows of color and which will give you instant visual texture.

Fugitive Colors

Fugitive colors may be beautiful, but they really don’t belong in your paint box. These colors are not permanent and will fade or change color over time. Most of the fugitives have been replaced with long lasting substitutes, but if you’re not careful, you may wind up with a couple in your tabouret.

Even if you love Terre Verte or Crimson Lake, resist the urge to use them in your paintings. Even though they won’t maintain their colors well, there are still paints produced that fade badly with exposure to light.

Check the permanence rating of paints before purchasing them. There should be an ASTM rating on the tube. Paints that are rated Excellent or Very Good are paints that will last longer than you will.

These little projects are going to take some time to complete, but it’s worth the effort. When finished, you’ll have a great reference that will save you time, effort and allow you to concentrate more on painting and less on paint selection.

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